Q&A: Jason Olson on Latter-day Saints’ role in fighting antisemitism
The author of ‘The Burning Book’ discusses the unique relationship between Judaism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
When Jason Olson — then a 14-year-old Jewish teen — was offered a Book of Mormon by a pair of well-meaning classmates, he didn’t know what to do with it. What does a reform Jewish teenager, with a reform Jewish mother, do with such a book? Returning it would be offensive to his friends; leaving it on his desk or in his room would offend his mother. It gathered dust in his backpack for months. Eventually, Olson decided on a logical compromise: he’d burn it.
One night, with a lighter in one hand and the book in the other, Olson went outside. As he lifted the book to the flame, he heard a voice in his head. “Do not burn my book,” it said. Olson shook it off. He lifted the lighter again, and the voice returned. “Go to your room and read my book.”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson shared Olson’s unique introduction to the church in the April 2020 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Olson, now several decades removed from this transformative experience, repeated this story, and others, in his recently released book, “The Burning Book: A Jewish-Mormon Memoir.”
Olson’s lucid narrative carries readers through his upbringing to his introduction to the Latter-day Saints by way of two classmates. Olson’s later years were spent trying to delicately balance his Jewish heritage and beliefs with his new Christian discoveries. His view of the Book of Mormon is unique, heavily influenced by Jewish theology and custom, and he sees it as a “Middle Testament” bridging the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.
He adds a fresh pair of eyes to the Latter-day Saint faith — for example, just as surely as Christians believe first-century Jews erred with respect to Christ, Olson argues “Christians missed something by rejecting the significance of the temple.” The book is full of nuggets of general moral wisdom (“Some of the pain we cause comes from sin; some just comes from the tensions of living”) and calls for ecumenical understanding (“God is certainly big enough to work with the pieces of truth in all kinds of traditions”).
Olson’s unique upbringing set him up for a series of multifaith experiences: after his conversion to Christianity disqualified him to participate in a Birthright trip taken by many young Jews to Israel, he served a Latter-day Saint mission to New Jersey (one of the areas with the highest concentration of American Jews). He graduated from BYU’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies/Hebrew Bible program and Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies program. He lived in Israel and served as a chaplain in the U.S. military.
As the U.S. sees a record uptick in antisemitic incidents, Olson’s book serves as both a window into religious pluralism and a guide to understanding how to fight modern antisemitism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: We’re seeing a frightening surge of antisemitism in the United States. And we could go through examples, from attacks on synagogues to antisemitic rhetoric. What can we do — and I say we, collectively, as Americans — to fight antisemitism?
Jason Olson: First of all, what comes to mind is a great scholar of the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder. What he’s written really resonates with me. I believe that the real source of antisemitism is the desire to eliminate or silence voices of moral conscience. The most extreme expression of antisemitism was Nazism and Hitler’s ideology.
What Hitler was trying to do was to have human beings think of themselves as a species — that different races are different species. The reason he despised Jews so much was because he believed Jews introduced a particular idea of conscience and morality into the world. The other Jewish idea that Hitler hated was that every human being is created in the image of God, and the idea that perhaps there are racial cultures or ethnic cultures, but at the end of the day, every human being is descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve.
“If we have common parents, then why are we so divided?”
So, in a Jewish idea, race is really not that important, in the sense that it should divide humanity. Abraham Joshua Heschel makes this point really clear, that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. If we have common parents, then why are we so divided? Conscience and humanity in the image of God — those are the ideas that, from a Nazi perspective, Jews brought into the world.
So, how do we fight antisemitism? We recognize the Jewish people and Judaism as our partners in building a world where we embrace conscience and morality. We embrace the humanity of every human being.
DN: In many ways, you write about Jews and Latter-day Saints as brothers and sisters. Do you see Latter-day Saints as having a special role or having any additional responsibility to fight antisemitism in all of its forms?
Olson: I think it’s built into the Restoration. You know, we’re all children of God. In Judaism, they say everybody is in the image of God. In Latter-day Saint tradition, everyone is a child of God. And so as we look at racial diversity in the church, we can partner with Jewish people in embracing racial diversity and humanity. We also have a tradition of Orson Hyde and the restoration of a Jewish state. The Prophet Joseph Smith supported Jewish national self-determination very early, and reconstructing a Jewish state. So, I think as we embrace the prophetic teachings that we already have, and look at them clearly, we can fight against antisemitism.
DN: I’m curious how your view on Zionism and the state of Israel was influenced by learning about Orson Hyde’s mission to the Holy Land and this Latter-day Saint perspective on Zion. What unique view do Latter-day Saints bring to this controversial topic of the state of Israel and Zionism?
Olson: Great question. While Orson Hyde was called on his mission to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jewish people, he wrote a letter to Rabbi Solomon Hirschell, who was the chief rabbi of the British Empire. We can think of him as the Rabbi Jonathan Sachs of the early 19th century. That’s a way to kind of think about who this guy is — it’s like one of the Quorum of the Twelve writing a letter to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, of blessed memory.
The letter is fascinating because there’s no language of conversion or inviting Rabbi Hirschell to join the church. In the letter, Orson Hyde acknowledges Rabbi Hirschell as an authentic leader of the Jewish people, and as an authority in the lives of Jewish people. The letter is primarily about gathering, about Zionism, and inviting Rabbi Hirschell to be a part of this very proto-Zionist project of getting the levers working — awakening the leaders of the Jewish people in Europe to begin the process of returning to the land of Israel.
It’s not saying, “Hey, I’m about to embark on this mission of proselytizing Jews in Europe.” That’s not there at all. It’s all about Orson Hyde urging the leaders of the Jewish people, I think, to create a World Zionist Congress, which doesn’t actually happen until 1897 with Theodor Herzl. But you can see that’s really what Orson Hyde wants, in the way that I interpret it. And so, I mean, that’s pretty instructive. I think that’s how the Prophet Joseph Smith and Orson Hyde were thinking about Jewish people.
So, how do we fight antisemitism? ... We embrace the humanity of every human being.
It’s this fascinating pluralism. The Prophet Joseph Smith is hoping for another religion to be restored. It’s this concept of religious pluralism that we barely wrap our minds around. The restoration, of course, is about restoring all the twelve tribes of Israel. But when it comes to Jews, they’re restoring them in their Judaism, which is really interesting.
Even Orson Hyde wrote Joseph Smith and asked, what do I do if there are Jews who convert? And Joseph Smith wrote back and said, for Jews who convert, they should come to Zion, you know, come to America, the community that the Prophet Joseph was building. But for Jews that were not interested in converting, they should gather in the land of Israel. And so there was a place in Joseph Smith’s thought for Jews to remain Jews, to remain in Judaism, and to have their own restoration.
DN: In the book, you write, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is at its best when it is a link between old traditions and new insights, rather than as a total replacement for what people had before.” Could you flesh that out a little bit more? How do you see the church being at its best when it links the old with the new?
Olson: I think that there is this strand where there are some that want us to just be a restoration of the New Testament church. And I think the Restoration is more than that. From my perspective, the Prophet Joseph Smith is clear about this. The Restoration is a restoration of all the keys of all the dispensations.
DN: I thought your book was moving and deeply personal. I’m curious how the idea came about to write your story.
Olson: Well, I had a bishop years ago who told me, “You really, really need to write your story into a book one day.” At the time, I just didn’t feel like I was ready. But then I had all these other adventures: I served a mission, went to BYU, went to Israel, went to Brandeis, served as a chaplain. And then as I was transitioning from chaplain to foreign area officer, I got a call from the mission president who presided over the Arizona Mesa Mission when I was baptized. He said, “Hey, one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Christofferson, wants to share part of your conversion story in General Conference. Would you be OK with that?” And I said, “Sure.”
But a lot has happened since I first joined the church. The way that I understand the Restoration, and the things that I learned about Judaism have grown a lot since an 18-year-old version of myself told the story — through going to Israel, through studying at BYU’s Hebrew Bible program, through getting a Ph.D. at Brandeis University in Jewish studies. So I felt like I really needed to update this, and I thought it might be a blessing to some other people.